The epistles of 2 John and 3 John paint a small corner of a larger picture of what life was like in the early church. Those two epistles speak of how itinerant teachers would travel around to different places and enjoy the hospitality of the Christians who lived in those places. Since there weren’t hotels or motels on every corner in those ancient cities and towns, it was common practice for Christians to put fellow Christians up for the night and offer them a meal (Romans 12:9-13). Even more than that, since the congregations of the early church were “house churches” that met in homes, if a teacher spent a day or two in a home that served as the meeting place for a “house church,” that teacher would be asked to speak to that congregation.
Now, after reading that you might think, “That all sounds just fine. What could go wrong with such a practice?” Well, there were actually a couple of problems that developed.
Problem #1 was that some Christian homeowners showed a serious lack of discernment in regards to knowing the difference between true teachers and false teachers. For example, the epistle of 2 John is written to a specific woman who showed hospitality to so-called “Christian” teachers who taught that Jesus was something less than God in human flesh — either that He wasn’t fully divine or fully human (v.9). John’s loving rebuke to that Christian lady was, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring the doctrine of Christ, do not receive him into your house or even greet him, because if you do you will be sharing in his evil deeds” (v.9-11).
Problem #2 was the exact opposite of problem #1, and it’s the one that John addresses in the epistle of 3 John. A certain Christian (at least he called himself a Christian) named Diotrephes refused to allow the homes of anyone who attended his local congregation to be opened up to traveling teachers, even genuinely God-called teachers who spoke the truth (v.10). He wouldn’t even allow the apostle John and John’s traveling companions to be received (v.9). Furthermore, he spoke malicious words against John (v.10).
And what happened if one of Diotrephes’ fellow church members broke rank with his standing order and showed hospitality to a traveling teacher? Diotrephes would have that church member excommunicated (“churched”) from the congregation (v.10). The situation was so bad that John actually sent a letter, one now lost to history, to that congregation to address the problem, but Diotrephes either refused to allow the letter to be read or even worse, destroyed it (v.9).
Standing in stark contrast to Diotrephes was a Christian named Gaius, to whom the letter of 3 John is addressed (v.1). Since “Gaius” was a very common name in the first century (Acts 19:29, 20:4; Romans 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14), it’s hard to say with certainty who this man was. Some speculate that he was a pastor whose home was used for a “house church.” Others think that he was a member of the same congregation that Diotrephes attended. All we know for sure is what John tells us about him, which is:
- Gaius was beloved, especially by John. (v.1,2,5,11)
- Gaius’ spiritual health was robust, even though it’s possible that he had some health issues physically. (v.2)
- John had heard glowing reports from others about the hospitality that Gaius extended to traveling Christian teachers. (v.3, 5-8)
- Gaius was either one of John’s personal converts to Christ or one of the members of the churches over which John had apostolic authority. (v.4)
- John hoped to visit Gaius shortly and have a good visit with him. (v.13-14)
Another Christian that John praises in 3 John is Demetrius. John describes him as a man who has “a good testimony from all” (v.12). The praise that John lavishes on both Gaius and Demetrius evidences the fact that many of the Christians of the early church were kindhearted, selfless people who enjoyed being able to help any Christian teacher who was out and about ministering to others. It seems that Diotrephes was the exception rather than the rule.
Still, Diotrephes was a major problem not only to his particular congregation but to unbelievers outside the church who could use his actions to say, “Those Christians can’t even get along with themselves.” John describes him as one who “loves to have the preeminence among them” (v.9), and the Greek word translated there as “preeminence” literally means “to be fond of being first.” That was Diotrephes up one side and down the other. He didn’t see his local congregation as a place where he could serve Jesus Christ by humbling serving others. No, he saw it as a place where he could be the egomaniacal dictator who could lord over the congregation and bully it into bending to his warped will. It’s no wonder that many commentators take John’s words from 3 John v.11 to indicate that Diotrephes wasn’t even a true Christian.
Unfortunately, Diotrephes can still be found in many churches today even though he has been dead for some 2,000 years. He’s the church member who has to run the show. She’s the one through whom all decisions must flow. He’s the one who single-handedly prevents the church from moving forward into God’s will and blessings. She’s the one no church member would dare vote against or cross. In his commentary The Epistles of John, Oliver B. Greene writes the following concerning Diotrephes:
There are such men in the local churches today, men who, if they would tell the truth when asked if they belong to the church, would reply, “I do not belong to the church — the church belongs to ME.” There ARE churches (and to my sorrow I have been in a few of them) that are not run by God or by the pastor — nor even by the board of deacons — but by one person. Sometimes that person is a man; occasionally, sad to say, it is a woman; but in such instances, the whole church does what that one person commands.
You might have noticed that Oliver B. Greene gives pastors a bit of a break in that quote, but it is undeniable that many pastors cross the line into Diotrephes territory. While multiple New Testament passages do grant the pastor the rule over the local congregation (Acts 20:28; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17; Hebrews 13:7,17,24), this ruling is to be carried out by a pastor who is “not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous” (1 Tim. 3:3, N.K.J.V.) and is “not self-willed, not quick-tempered…but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled” (Titus 1:7-8, N.K.J.V.)
Peter, who was a hot-headed natural born leader himself, summed up the pastor’s leadership role best when he wrote:
Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock… (1 Peter 5:2-3)
As for any other type of “church boss” — whether that person be a deacon, a deacon’s wife, a treasurer, a trustee, a Sunday School teacher, a member of the Building & Grounds committee, a member of the Finance committee, a member of the Pulpit committee, or just a regular lay person who sees advantages in not holding an official title but who dominates everything anyway — Jesus offers a clear word on the subject. And it’s a word that I’ll use as a close to this post. Read carefully, Christian, and understand how this word should manifest itself in any local church setting, including the one in which you find yourself right now:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)